You know that feeling: feeling regret over the one that got away. It might be those perfect jeans that seemed expensive at the time, or that event you didn’t attend that was scattered all over your friends’ social feeds. Or maybe it was something bigger: a job offered and turned down, the opportunity to move to a different city or country, or just something you turned down and have always wondered, Was that the one decision that would have changed everything forever?
My partner and I faced this decision five years ago. We had just married, and were happily reveling in the glow from our wedding. We were surrounded that day by our tribe in Perth, Western Australia. I had recently found out I was pregnant with our first child, and would be sharing that pregnancy with not one, but three of my closest friends! Our due dates were only weeks apart.
It was then that my husband was offered an incredible work opportunity that would involve moving across the globe. This was a year before we would have been in a position to take it without question. But when it was offered, it seemed like it was too much. The idea of moving to a new city with no support and having a baby was scary. And we were so happy where we were.
So he turned it down. I could say he did that for for the two of us, but that wouldn’t entirely be true. He really turned it down for me. We choose to pass up the opportunity for friends, family, and the lifestyle we led. These external influences definitely played a large role in our choice. But it’s also possible that we passed it up because I was not looking into the future clearly. I let the opportunity go because I thought if we were happy where we were right then, we would be happy that way forever.
When I realized we might have missed out
It was a year later that I started to feel we might have missed out, and that perhaps we made the wrong decision. Over the next few years, things did get a lot harder. I was home raising two children, and my husband was clearly enjoying his job less. And frankly, the money started to matter. Every month we were stretched financially, and I felt guilty that it had been my demands that put us there.
The hardest part of coping with the opportunity we didn’t take was the what-ifs. What if we had taken it? Would things be easier? Would we be economically more stable? Would be more able to participate in the activities we enjoyed? Would we have more freedom? Would we be better able to provide for our children? Would we be happier?
Since it was ultimately my decision, I harbored a lot of guilt for deciding to stay. And for a long time, that was where I resided: in the regret of a decision I made for my family. Living in regret means living in the past. And living in the past was not going to be an asset in creating the future I wanted — nor would it allow me to ever be content in the present.
I knew had to change, as regret was getting me nowhere.
The Silver Lining
I started by taking the silver lining approach. I focused on what was around us, and what we would be missing out on if we had left. I practised gratitude. And I shared my sadness for the missed opportunity. I spoke about the silver lining, and how grateful we were to have that.
But there is a problem with this approach.
I didn’t realize it until a close friend made a remark to me. It was during a conversation about that missed opportunity. I was talking about how it was okay we had missed it, because there were so many great reasons to be here. She turned to me and said “Well, we’re very happy you stayed. You know, we really would have missed you if you’d left.”
And that’s when it hit me: We did, in fact, have a wonderful community where we were. And we would have lost that if we had left.
What I realized was that by focusing on the silver lining of what we missed, we were making our present second best. By seeing our life as the silver lining, we were making the other option always better. We were creating and sustaining the idea that what we had chosen wrong. It was second best, and the opportunity we missed would always be the one that got away.
Even if in reality it wasn’t the best opportunity, we were MAKING it so.
I have done a lot differently since that realization.
5 ways to move past regret and make your present the priority
- The best choice is the one you make. The worst possible outcome is when a decision happens due to inaction. When that happens, you have no control. Even if you regret it later, making a choice is always better than having a choice made for you.
- Stop idealizing the unknown. There is no way of knowing exactly how life would have panned out differently. It’s easy to idealize the one that got away. In doing so, we forget that when we made that decision, we had reasons to say no. Those reasons might seem insignificant now, but they mattered at the time. To bring out an old cliche, hindsight is 20/20. And it is so easy to judge after the fact. Circumstances will always change. It’s essential to maintain confidence in your ability to make the right decisions, both now and in the future.
- Know the details of why you feel you missed an opportunity. What exactly is it that you think you missed out on? In our case, was it the job itself? The economic security? Feeling stuck and wanting a change? If you can work out exactly what it is you missed out on, it might become clear that you actually didn’t miss the opportunity at all. Was it really about those jeans you didn’t buy – or do you really just want some pants that make you feel sexy and confident? Was it the job you turned down, or are you feeling stuck in your current role and this was just an opportunity to get out?
- What can you do now, to create what you missed out on? Once you know what it is you feel you missed, the world is at your fingertips! Instead of focusing on a big missed opportunity, break it down into microsteps. What can you do to achieve the same outcome? For us, there were two major areas. Firstly, my husband worked with his employer to change his role to one that he could thrive in. Once he stopped feeling stagnant, his mindset towards the missed opportunity shifted. Secondly, was me. I needed to make a major course correction as well, and I wrote about it here.
- Live in the present. This is a simple mindfulness tool, but it’s incredibly effective. It is also essential to maintaining adequate self-care. Whenever we live in regret, we are living in the past. And it doesn’t matter if the best was five minutes, five days, or five years ago — we can’t change it. But we can change how we react to it. So the best thing we can do when we regret the decision we made is to learn from it, and use what we learn to move us forward.
When it comes to past decisions, it doesn’t matter if you should have taken the opportunity, or if you shouldn’t have. Because you didn’t. But if you consider what it truly is you feel you missed out on, you can decide what you future is going to look like. You can take back that power and move out of regret for good.
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